After a sleepless night in the girls’ dorm on Saturday, January 29th, the morning after the Friday protests that swept across Egypt, I sat on the first floor steps of my building with my 25-year old Arabic professor. He had come to check on us.
After exchanging a few pleasantries, I asked him: “How are you doing Zehad?”
He paused for a moment and spoke to me in English for the first time:
“Me?” he asked.
“I don’t know how I feel. I’ve lost everything. I’ve been having problems with my Dad and he kicked me out yesterday so I’ve lost my family. I’ve lost my friends. I’ve lost my job. My students are leaving, and who knows if the money in the bank is worth anything?”
He paused, staring through me.
“I like to be helpful. I like to teach. Now what can I do? I have nothing to live for.”
“Don’t get me wrong…I hate the government, but I look around me, and I don’t recognize my city. It looks strange. This isn’t my city,” he said, shaking his head.
“If I die today, it would be better.”
We sat silently, not knowing what to say, trying hard not to break down in front of him. Within the cultural context of Egypt, that conversation was an impossible one. For an Egyptian man, especially a professor, to talk to us—a group of foreign women—so candidly was unbelievable.
What could I say to him? Knowing that I was about to get on a plane and go back to America made “I’m sorry” seem inadequate.
For the first time, I understood what my Egyptian friends and teachers were risking by taking to the streets: everything.
Over the course of my short time in Egypt—where I was studying abroad with Middlebury College—I watched ordinary Egyptians come together in extraordinary ways. The entire world watched them rise up against a brutally oppressive and illegitimate dictatorship despite police intimidation and retaliation.
And yesterday, February 11th, we all bore witness to the power of the Egyptian people as they shook the foundations of that regime with their chants and cries, bringing down its long-time leader Hosni Mubarak.
I couldn’t help but be struck by something a television newscaster said yesterday over the scenes of jubilation in Tahrir Square following the announcement of Mubarak’s resignation—a familiar phrase for American citizens. “Freedom isn’t free,” he said.
While I was in Egypt, I witnessed firsthand the human cost of revolution. Freedom has its price, and in order to fully appreciate what the Egyptian people accomplished yesterday, it is important to understand what they have risked to achieve it.
Egyptian protestors—Muslims and Christians, men and women, rich and poor, educated and uneducated—braved tear gas, rubber bullets, and even live fire to peacefully demand the right to choose their government in free and fair elections. I watched them do it.
When looters and thugs released from prison overran the city and countryside alike, capitalizing on a desperate situation for their own gain, Egyptians from all walks of life took back the night.
I owe my life to these Egyptians, who formed neighborhood watches across Egypt to protect their families and property. They banded together wielding sticks, bricks, and even chair legs, anticipating the arrival of thugs armed with semi-automatic weapons. It is widely believed that many of these thugs were acting on behalf of the government to terrorize the Egyptian populace. The offer was simple: order and stability in exchange for human dignity and freedom.
Egyptians chose the latter and gave up the ability to live a normal life.
Imagine what it must feel like to wake up one morning and find yourself completely disconnected from the world, to feel completely helpless because your government has cut off the Internet and cellular phones to prevent peaceful demonstrations.
Imagine what it must feel like to be in the middle of final exams at Alexandria University one day, and to be guarding your family’s village against intruders the next.
“We’re protecting the electricity supply so that at least, if they come, we can see who we’re fighting,” said Karim in a phone call, a psychology major at the American University of Cairo.
Imagine what it must feel like to be too afraid to walk to your exam because you might get beaten or arrested by a plain-clothes police officer.
Imagine what it must feel like to know that the entire police force of your city of more than 17 million inhabitants have fled, freeing armed prisoners in their wake.
Imagine what it must feel like to then live under martial law because the army has taken over your city. To realize that your life as you knew it is over and you have no idea when things will “get better,” or if you will ever be able to go back to school, or sleep without the fear of being hit by stray bullets.
In the face of tremendous brutality and life-shattering uncertainty, ordinary Egyptians—my university professors included—came together to defend each other and restore a sense of normalcy in their city.
As we celebrate what is hopefully the first of many victories to come for the Egyptian people, it is important to recognize what they sacrificed. The throngs of Egyptians we see on television in Tahrir Square—and across Egypt—are composed of individuals with their own fears and hopes. They had everything to lose, but now have everything to gain.
Written by Nicole Jimenez*** a student at Brown University who was studying at the C.V. Starr Middlebury School Abroad in Alexandria.